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Initiative Tackles Sustainability, Energy Issues

New organization will seek solutions to some of society's pressing issues

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October 21, 2008 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University has launched the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) to support research, teaching and outreach in these critical areas, Northwestern President Henry S. Bienen announced today (Oct. 21).

President Bienen said the initiative will seek solutions to some of society's most pressing problems by consolidating and building on Northwestern's existing strengths as well as fostering new efforts in energy and sustainability.

ISEN is unusual among universities in that it focuses on both energy and sustainability. Another strength is the collaboration with Argonne National Laboratory, ISEN's primary research partner outside the University. The two institutions will be developing an integrated research platform in energy and sustainability.

Most of the world's energy needs currently are met by burning fossil fuels, a finite resource. Carbon dioxide released by these fuels changes and harms the environment. As global energy needs increase, responsible approaches to solving the energy problem are vital and must address sustainability.

"ISEN is an umbrella organization designed to create, advance and communicate new science, technology and policy," said Mark Ratner, Lawrence B. Dumas Distinguished University Professor and one of ISEN's co-directors. "Our most important goal is to integrate the University's efforts in energy, sustainability and outreach. Northwestern is particularly strong in solar energy, transportation, nanotechnology, materials and sustainability. We will take advantage of these areas, while growing others."

At its core, ISEN will promote and financially support fundamental scientific research, teaching and outreach across the University, leading to an understanding of sustainable energy supply, demand and use. The initiative will expand an already solid base of research at Northwestern: during the last academic year, the University was awarded approximately $37 million for sponsored research in energy and sustainability.

David Dunand, James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is ISEN's other co-director. Both he and Ratner have an energy component to their research. Dunand focuses on developing lighter and stronger materials for energy-efficient transportation and heat-resistant materials for improved power generation. Ratner, a pioneer in molecular electronics and professor of chemistry, is interested in using nanoscience to attack the energy problems facing the United States and the world.

Julio Ottino, dean of the McCormick School, and Tobin Marks, Vladimir N. Ipatieff Research Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of materials science and engineering in McCormick, initiated the planning nearly three years ago that resulted in ISEN.

"ISEN is centered on the two major strengths that universities can contribute: research and teaching," said Jay Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern and a member of Argonne's board of governors. "Northwestern's strong culture of interdisciplinarity across our schools gives ISEN a breadth of vision that few research universities can match."

As part of its charge to support research and teaching, ISEN supports new and existing research by providing startup funds for pilot or seed research projects, and matching funds for post-doctoral, graduate and undergraduate fellowships and for major equipment purchases and maintenance. ISEN also organizes major conferences at Northwestern with top experts on the topics of energy and sustainability and the associated policy and economics.

New courses will be developed for students across the University, from the physical sciences, engineering and social sciences to business, communication and law. Four new undergraduate- and graduate-level courses on global issues related to energy and sustainability will be offered starting in the spring quarter. In the longer term, ISEN plans to establish an energy and sustainability minor at the undergraduate level across several schools and to create a master's degree program in energy and sustainability studies.

The initiative also plans to offer a summer program, including internships, at Northwestern for students from K-12 through the post-graduate level.

"ISEN is not limited to scientists and engineers alone," said Dunand. "We will draw on the intellectual and programmatic capabilities of all of Northwestern's schools and centers to provide a new integrated direction for the University, focusing on the many challenges surrounding sustainability and energy."

"Sustainability is about more than energy," added Ratner. "It also includes fostering sustainable technologies that address global issues such as water, land, air, materials, food and waste."

The research partnership with Argonne National Laboratory will encourage the promotion of other energy activities, including the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research Center, the Center for Energy Efficient Transportation and the Institute for Sustainable Practices. Many other Northwestern centers, including those focused on nanoscience and technology, catalysis and transportation, will be involved with ISEN.

ISEN also develops and maintains strong relationships with domestic and international corporations, foundations, government agencies, international organizations and other educational institutions.

"There has been a groundswell of enthusiasm from students, faculty and alumni," said Ratner. "Through ISEN, we hope to transform the area of energy and sustainability from a challenge to an accomplishment for all the people of the planet."

For more information, contact Bridget Calendo, ISEN's director of operations and outreach, at (847) 467-0863 or bridget@northwestern.edu or go to ISEN online.